Saturday, February 21, 2004

The Void

The Void

Gunawan (not his real name) is an old friend of mine in Jakarta. He is married with a couple of teenage kids. When I was in Jakarta we meet every now and then for dinner--usually at the Furama Restaurant in Kota for some Teochew porridge.

Like many of the rich middleclass Chinese in Jakarta, he and his wife's family owns factories and other types of buinesses. Though happily married with a very capable wife who runs her own business, Gunawan still indulgues in relationships with other women.

Being single, I'm always curious about married men who have extra-marital affairs. So every time I meet up with Gunawan, I'd take the opportunity to try and fathom the motivation behind their acts of infidelity.

Gunawan has been having an affair with a girl (a native pribumi girl), much younger than him for almost six years now. He feels a bit of guilt doing so and has over the years tried to break up the relationship but failed because the pain and was too much for them. So it wasn't just sex, there's love involved.

Which made me even more curious. Why does a married man still seek love outside marriage? Do feelings for one's life partner fade after a certain period of time together? These are questions which I, in my indiscretion, asked Gunawan during those porridge dinners of ours.

Gunawan didn't have a simple answer for me. He loves his wife but somehow there's still a void inside that needs to be filled. As long as this void is there, he will be driven to seek solace in the arms of a woman.

But what is this void? Is this void, loneliness? Can a man who is occupied with the everyday cares of family and business still suffer from loneliness?

Certain men claim that they do not share any common interests with their wives, hence they cannot find intellectual fulfilment with their partners. But if intellectual companionship is what such men look for, why can't they find it in the company of male friends? Why do men seek the company of women, if not for that something which only women can provide? Perhaps Billy Crystal is right in When Harry Met Sally when he said: "men and women can't be friends because the sex part always gets in the way"?

Or is this void a spiritual one? Do we feel this emptiness because we lack fulfillment in some of the areas in my four layer stack model? If so, is it possible for us to find completeness on our own, without having to rush headlong into another reckless relationship?

Perhaps there's no easy answers for all these questions; all of us have to spend our lives discovering the 'why's ourselves by plunging into one relationship after another and sometimes jeopardising our marriage in the process.

The oceans of the world are always trying to find equilibrium but they'll never succeed because areas of high and low energy will always be created for as long as the earth goes round the sun. Tides will be churned by gravity; Storms, tornadoes and hurricanes will continue to rage on.

We do the things we do, because we all have voids inside us and we are all trying to seek some equilibrium state. In a sense, we are all "unstable"--we are born with an "original sin", an imperfection that has somehow been injected into our soul. It is this imperfection that drives human affairs. And we spend all our waking hours trying to find that elusive peace and perfection. May God have mercy on us all.

The Security Guard, the Librarian and the Immigration Officer

The Security Guard, the Librarian and the Immigration Officer

The security guard at Masjid Istiqlal Jakarta--the largest mosque in South East Asia--was ultra-friendly to me when I was snapping pictures outside the place one weekend. I had no intention of going into the mosque as I was merely interested in taking pictures of the hawkers outside. It was a Sunday, and I knew all the tourist places were usually closed.

But he invited me in, opened the gates for me, and showed me the splendour of that magnificent place of worship. He explained the significance of its pillars and the intricacies of its carvings. As it was my first time inside a Muslim place of worship, I was enthralled.

At the end of the "tour", the security guard politely asked me for a tip. He reminded me also that he has a few other colleagues who were working that day--indicating indirectly to me that the 10K rupiah tip that I was pulling out from my wallet wasn't enough. I gave him 50K.

At the National Library, the librarians were very helpful: they offered to photocopy books for me at a cheaper rate than what the photocopy service at the library was offering. I took their offer.

Many of my customers in government departments have their own companies outside which deliver services back to their very own department. Everyone in Indonesia has some means of earning a side income.

As vendors, we are always pampering and spoiling the customers with gifts and other perks--this includes things like paying for their house renovations or upgrading the hi-fi system of their car. These are basic routine stuff that every sales rep has to fulfill. And we haven't come to the actual deal or project yet--you always have to cost in a cut for all the decision makers, and not forgetting the people in the procurement department.

On my last trip back from Jakarta, the immigration officer, knowing that I was leaving Jakarta for good, asked me for some "parting gift". I politely refused--simply because I was too embarassed to take out money from my wallet at the immigration counter (with people queueing up behind me) as if I was buying a ticket at the fun-fair. It didn't seem to bother them though.

Whether you are an immigration officer, a high-ranking government servant, a lowly security guard or a bookish librarian, everyone is entitled to earn some side-income. It is so commonplace that people feel that it is their birthright to do so. It has become part of the culture. Perhaps that is also part of the charm of Indonesia; but it is a side of Indonesia that I definitely will not miss.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Misty Memories of Bandung

Misty Memories of Bandung

The night air in Bandung is always fresh and invigorating. And there's that every-present scent of greens and pines which inevitably reminds me of California. Even though everyone laments the fact that Bandung is a lot more polluted compared to how it was even five or six years ago, it is still a very pleasant place.

Thinking back about my time in Indonesia, the projects that I had done in Bandung are my most successful and enjoyable ones. There's a very relaxed atmosphere about Bandung which made me able to think a lot better whenever I was there. I also liked the hotels: The Holliday Inn is a bargain; Hyatt is a bit expensive but the rooms are big and comfortable; and if you like Art Deco architecture and history, then the Grand Hotel Preanger and Savoy Homann are excellent places to stay at. There's always an air of romance about the place.

My last trip there was a personal one; I stayed at the Preanger and spent a couple of nights in the hotel room finishing my article about Bandung and Sukarno. Preanger is the oldest hotel in Bandung and I chose the place because I wanted to soak myself in the atmosphere of Bandung of 1930s--the years when Sukarno was there as a student at the Technische Hogeschool --forerunner of the now famous Institut Teknologi Bandung. It is believed that Sukarno helped to draft the designs for the renovations of the hotel in the 1930s, assisting Professor CP Wolfe Schoemaker, his mentor at the university.

When I was there I managed to meet up with people from the Bandung Heritage who gave me valuable clues about the old buildings that were associated with Sukarno. I managed to visit Sukarno's old house at No 8 Jalan Ciateul--the place where he spend some happy years living together with Ibu Inggit Garnasih--his second wife.

Sukarno wrote in his autobiography about his first impression of Bandung:

"I found its climate cool and its women gorgeous. Bandung and I took to each other immediately".

And I couldn't agree with him more. Writing these words from my room in Subang Jaya, my mind yearns to be on the Argo Gede train again, as it meanders its way across the highlands of West Java, towards that misty abode in the hills, that charming colonial town called Bandung, that Shangri-La of the Parahyangan.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Offsprings of the Trade Winds

Offsprings of the Trade Winds

I'm trying to get used to life in Malaysia. I have to accept a lower standard of courtesy and politeness than what I'm used to in Indonesia. Malaysians are generally a warm and friendly lot but at times I feel the customer service here leaves a lot to be desired.

In Jakarta I'm used to greeting the taxi driver everytime I hop into a cab. I usually get a cheerful reply. In Malaysia and Singapore, sometimes you get stoned silence; you can never even be sure if the cab driver even got your destination correctly. There's a tendency here to treat people with more suspicion.

Perhaps that's understandable. The kind of crimes that I read daily in the papers here makes me feel worried about the way our society is heading. Hopefully this Khidmat Negara (National Service) thing is good for the new generation of Malaysians. I remember when I was a Form Four student--twenty years ago--I wrote in one of my school Bahasa Malaysia "karangan" (essay), suggesting National Service as one of the ways to counter crime and to instill patriotism among the youths. Little did I know one day it would really happen. I think I would have loved to participate in one had it been available during my time.

It is still too early to tell if this present initiative will be a success. I think parents should give it more support. There should be pride associated with being selected to participate in Khidmat Negara. Many now see it as a hindrance and a waste of time. Parents prefer to shove their children into matriculation or pre-university classes and gain some headway in the paper-chase. It is sad indeed if education comes down to that.

Malaysia is a blessed land. I always tell my Indonesian friends that Malaysia is lucky not to have gone through the kind of upheavals that Indonesia has. I fear the younger generation do not realise how lucky they are to inherit a country that is strife-free and endowed with rich natural resources. We are also shielded from earthquakes and other natural disasters.

For centuries the trade winds have brought prosperity to our land--Arab and Indian merchants from the West and Chinese from the East. Our fengshui is very good indeed. The Straits of Malacca is like a funnel that channeled all the wealth of commerce to our land. Ad we Malaysians--the offsprings of the trade winds--must learn to make ourselves its worthy inheritors.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Being Productive

Being Productive

Weekends can slip by just like that if we do not use them wisely. When I was teaching my undergraduate course in Jakarta, I spent every weekend working on my lecture slides for the coming week. I had to teach early in the morning before I go to the office every Monday and Tuesday. Weekends were the only time available for me to prepare for those classes.

It was hardwork but I enjoyed it because nothing makes me happier than keeping myself busy with productive work. My teaching job was like community service; I was happy to be able to give something back to the Indonesian community which I loved so much.

In between my regular IT job and my part-time teaching, I managed to write some articles for one of the local English publications in Indonesia. I still have one article which--if everything goes well--will be published next month. Those last months of mine in Jakarta were very hectic--every moment of my time was used up in either one of these three major preoccupations.

Now that I'm back in KL, I try to maintain the same discipline of constant productive work. Discipline is so important, especially if you are your own boss. I consider productive work as any act of creation--bringing into existence something new and making things hapen. Growth and creativity is what I strive for. If these elements are present in my work, I consider my time well-spent and productive.

A healthy person spends his day with eight hours of work, eight hours of sleep and eight hours of life maintenance activities--eating, bathing, socializing, reading and relaxing (and blogging). I think it is a good formula; I am quite happy if I can achieve a full eight hours of intense productive work. Most of us spend that amount of time in the office, but on the average I think the productive hours are probably just a fraction of that.

Being useful and productive gives me a great high. There's lots of work waiting for me. It is Sunday, the start of another week. I look forward to a very productive week ahead!

My Writing Kitchen

My Writing Kitchen

The professional athlete trains on a regular basis, the dancer rehearses her routines daily; one of the main reasons why I try to blog everyday is to ensure that my writing skills remain sharp. This is important, even more so now, when I have to depend so much on my limited writing capability to make a living.

Well, I am not a professional writer but my peculiar line of work in IT somehow requires me to produce a lot of proposals and architectural whitepapers. These are thick documents that are often not read from cover to cover but they are produced to "prove" that work has been done.

Generally people are lazy to read and write. My job requires me to do both of these tasks intensely. I do not complain because tedious though it may be, I know I am capable of delivering them. Somehow I seem to fill a need out there: people are so lazy to digest all the information that's available, they are willing to pay someone else to chew, swallow and regurgitate them so that the become more "palatable".

Sometimes it is fun because the process of regurgitating food often result in the alteration of its taste. At the very least I make them taste better by filtering out the dross and distilling its essence. Sometimes I create new tastes by synthesizing different pieces of information together and in doing so provide fresh insights to the reader.

There's a lot of information out there. Most people just consume and much of it is junk. The stuff that I write in my blog are just regurgitation of things I've read from different sources and synthesis of pieces of information that I personally find interesting. I'm not sure if they are "tasty" to the average reader but it is something that I have to do: I have to keep my writing "kitchen" humming or it'll grind to a halt and will be extremely difficult to start again.